Life, #3: Roles and Relationships

Following on from my posts on science and feminism in Gwyneth Jones’ Life, it’s time to take a closer look at the two central relationships that shape and define so much of who Anna is and what she does: her marriage to Spence, and her on-off friendship (and more) with Ramone. Both are formed during Anna’s time as an undergraduate, and both send complicated tendrils out through the novel’s various themes.

Neither of them, it has to be said, are particularly easy to like.

Superficially, at least, Spence seems likeable. He’s sensitive, he’s smart, he’s quietly funny; he’s even attracted to Anna’s intelligence. (Well, mostly.)

She had no idea she was sexy. Picture it: Marilyn Monroe is sitting beside you – a brunette Marilyn, which is so much classier, and brainy, which to the male is subconsciously incredibly attractive, resist the dreadful idea as he will. […] He guessed [the other guys] had to be aware, at some level, of her wide shoulders, hand-span waist, and curvaceous little bottom; of the pert, round-as-apples breasts under her clean and modest tee-shirts. (20)

Later in this same reflective passage, Spence goes on to congratulate himself on how his “vintage feminist” mother would be proud of how much he’s not like other guys (“The menfolk of Annandale were an unregenerate lot, stubbornly resistant to the siren lure of female intelligence” (21)). So near, and yet so far; at no point during his panegyric to Anna Apple Boobs does Spence think about his object of desire as a person, whose intelligence is important to her for its own sake rather than as something that exists to attract him, Liberated Feminist Man.

This, I suppose, is the problem with Spence (or at least my problem with him). He has the occasional flash of understanding, but ultimately he never manages to move beyond thinking of Anna as part of his story: the love interest, the adjunct to his narrative arc, the woman that only he can recognise and rescue. Before his writing career takes off and his affair with (young, naive, worshipful) Meret develops, Spence is at his happiest and most focused when faced with Anna’s news of her accidental pregnancy. Oblivious to Anna’s devastation (the knowledge of her pregnancy, coming at such a crucial time in her research and spelling out the ways in which her life is out of her control, is “like a raw bereavement” to her (120)), Spence starts making wedding plans within minutes. This, you feel, is the moment he’s been waiting for: the chance to Do The Right Thing. He never stops to think about whether it is what Anna wants, and Anna is too sunk in her misery and too determined to be self-reliant to tell him, in small enough words, that it is not. This will be the pattern of their relationship.

The fact that Anna has her own story – that, indeed, the nature of Anna’s work means that in many ways Spence is far more a part of Anna’s story than she is of his – is something that he struggles with, throughout. It’s there on the several occasions when he casts himself in the role of house-husband (in Leeds, in Sungai, on the south coast in the final section of the book): he alternates between cheerful ebullience and depressed boredom, frustrated by his lack of purpose. Anna, consumed with her work, is too distracted to need, or be grateful for, his attempts to care for her. Their gender roles are flipped in more ways than the obvious: Spence takes on the job of neglected, long-suffering (whiny, demanding) wife, while Anna is the dynamic husband with her mind on higher things than domesticity (the distant, superior spouse who ignores the household labour – both physical and emotional – she doesn’t see). The problem lies in the roles themselves; the faults of those performing the roles only compound the issue.

Anna’s other major relationship, with gender-challenging Ramone, is less of a constant in her life but still a major influence. Whereas Anna so often takes Spence for granted, she spends a lot of time thinking about Ramone, “this mischievous, erratic guardian spirit” (8). Anna is frequently annoyed with Ramone, cutting off communication with her on more than one occasion, but she is always anxious to understand her: what she stands for, and what she means to her:

Who is Ramone Holyrod? she asked herself. Someone I invented. My exterior soul. The person I wished I could have been; my repository for those parts of my self I couldn’t use or didn’t want in my real life. Ideas that would have made it impossible for me to pursue my life’s work. Truths that would make me an outlaw.

Or a crackpot. (355)

Unlike Spence, Ramone has her own story, which intersects with Anna’s only at intervals: she has a career of her own with as many peaks and troughs as Anna’s does; she has a difficult, devoted relationship with her schizophrenic mentor, Lavinia; she cycles through purpose, despair, desire, turns her words into actions, changes her philosophy of life on several occasions, and adopts new personae for new situations.

Ramone’s story also comments upon Anna’s, both directly – through Ramone’s own, impassioned reflections – and through the implicit contrast between them. Anna knuckles down, Ramone acts out; Anna dresses neatly and unobtrusively, Ramone breaks every rule of cleanliness and self-presentation; Anna marries (in a church, no less) and forms a home with Spence, Ramone goes through a string of complex and sometimes abusive relationships, and has spells of living rough. Above all, Anna absorbs what the world throws at her, as a woman, and tries to make her way through life without rocking the boat too much – whereas Ramone shouts and fights and writes aggressive books and pisses off her closest friends on a regular basis. They make each other think, and deconstruct, and kick out, more than anyone else in their respective lives.

In the end, and quite inadvertantly, Anna does what Ramone never quite manages: she overturns the gender paradigm. Perhaps, anyway; but that will be the subject of the next post.

4 thoughts on “Life, #3: Roles and Relationships

  1. I’m glad you wrote this about Spence, since during my reading of Life I had the constant sense that his and Anna’s relationship was deeply dysfunctional but couldn’t put my finger on why or how. Your point that his feminism, and allegedly feminist self-abnegation, is actually a means for self-aggrandizement is well made. On the whole, though, I found Anna-as-wife almost as offputting. Her determination to be fair and do her part while having zero emotional involvement in the marriage felt stingy and unkind. It’s presumably part of Jones’s point that Anna is so thoroughly inculcated with gender roles, and particularly those of the self-sacrificing woman, that she’s willing to enter and stay in a marriage that she has no interest in simply because she thinks it’s the right thing to do, but unlike her reactions to her rape or the frustration of her career plans, her behavior within her relationship with Spence didn’t strike me as very believable.

  2. And I’m glad you wrote this comment, because it’s really helped me to clarify a few things about Anna, and Anna/Spence. This was the point I was getting at when I noted that Anna is distant, and that Spence is left to do the emotional heavy-lifting in the relationship – but I hadn’t thought about Anna’s sense of self-sacrifice as being what drives it, and I think you’re right. In times of stress, Spence and Anna both fall into gendered responses: Spence’s sense of entitlement surfaces (hence his deeply selfish and discomforting relationship with Meret); Anna feels she must shoulder the burden of everyone and not make a fuss, even when it does more harm than good.

    I come back to Charles, here, and the rape, and the fact that she never tells Spence; while I can understand why she chooses not to – she wants to put it behind her, she doesn’t want to hurt Spence with the knowledge, she sees it as her own business, and let’s face it Spence is hardly likely to react usefully – it is also unfair on Spence, because it continues to affect her actions and her moods, and he can’t make allowances for something he knows nothing about. And it’s symptomatic of, as you say, Anna’s lack of emotional investment in the relationship.

    It strikes me that this is also partly a matter of cultural upbringing: whereas Spence comes from the Land of the Overshare, Anna’s background is a taciturn, stoical Northern working/lower-middle-class one, so she’s used to internalising (something I recognise from my dad’s side of the family – you don’t talk about your problems, and you *certainly* don’t talk about your emotions!).

    Hmm. I’m going to talk about this more in my next post, and in particular I’m going to compare Spence/Anna with Charles/Meret – another deeply dysfunctional relationship, but dysfunctional in a much more conventionally gendered way.

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